Why did Belarus lift the “Iron Curtain” from its borders?
On 3 April 2022, Belarusian authorities lifted the rigid restrictions on border crossings in force since late 2020. Just as Minsk had taken its own approach in handling Covid-19, it had also developed a unique travel restriction system. Instead of placing limits on inbound travel, travel restrictions apply primarily to those inside the country. Belarusians, for example, cannot leave the country without documented reasons. Belarusian media had referred to the border crossing restrictions as a new “Iron Curtain.”
In another unusual move, Belarus recently announced visa-free land entry for Lithuanians and Latvians, effective from 15 April to 15 May 2022. Belarusian authorities claimed the Orthodox and Catholic Easter holidays as the reason for the changes. Governments in Latvia and Lithuania reacted with suspicion. Not only is Belarus viewed as a participant in the continuing war in Ukraine, but Latvia and Lithuania recall the artificial migration crisis that Minsk created not long ago.
By opening its borders, Belarusian authorities appear to be looking to alleviate domestic tensions in society and exploring the possibility of increasing contact with the EU.
Preventing Covid-19 or controlling society?
From 21 December 2020 to 3 April 2022, private Belarusian citizens could not enter Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, or Ukraine by land. The pretext was to contain Covid-19. But, for whatever reason, no restrictions applied to crossing Belarusian borders by air.
Belarusian citizens could exit Belarus by land once every three months, but only if they presented documented proof of travelling for work, study, medical reasons, family emergencies, or funerals. Only foreign diplomats, members of official delegations, or heavy goods vehicle drivers were exempt from these restrictions.
In an unexpected move, Belarusian authorities lifted these limitations on 3 April 2022, returning to its pre-Covid-19 border crossing routine. Foreigners still need to present negative PCR tests or vaccination certificates, except for those who enter Belarus due to the war in Ukraine. Russians are also exempt from Covid-19 regulations.
Also, nationals of 76 countries can visit Belarus without a visa if they travel via Minsk National Airport. Although in October 2021, Belarusian Dictator Alexander Lukashenka amended the visa-free regime to exclude U.S. citizens from the list.
Currently, Minsk Airport serves only a few destinations in Russia, Turkey, the UAE, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. A reduction in flights followed sanctions against Belarus in 2021. The sanctions were in reaction to a pair of events. The first was the forced landing of a Ryanair flight in May 2021, so the authorities could apprehend one of the passengers, opposition blogger Raman Pratasevich. The second event involved Belavia, the Belarusian national airline, flying migrants from the Middle East to Belarus to manufacture a border crisis with Belarus’ neighbours. The events led to limits on air travel to and from Belarus.
A new wave of migration from Belarus?
The lifting of travel restrictions could be an attempt to alleviate internal pressures in Belarusian society. Sanctions are provoking economic decline and prospects for the future remain uncertain. According to a recent World Bank report, a significant reduction in exports, tighter monetary and fiscal policy, and a decline in household consumption would reduce Belarusian GDP by at least 6.5 per cent in 2022.
Belarusians are more likely to consider migration in this situation. In spring 2022, EU countries started issuing short term, tourist Schengen visas after the lifting of Covid-19 restrictions on travel. There is a wait of several weeks for a free appointment slot at any of the EU consulates or visa centres in Minsk.
In March, Belarusians queued at the consular department of the foreign ministry to legalise their documents, even despite the significant increase in processing fees. The legalisation of degree certificates is a necessary procedure to recognise them in another country. This suggests Belarusians are expecting an economic downturn and preparing to work abroad.
Belstat, the national statistics authority, has not released official data on migration since 2019. But continued state repressions, a deteriorating economy, the relocation of businesses away from Belarus, and the war in Ukraine are all pressures that compel Belarusians to emigrate. For instance, the Georgian Interior Ministry recently reported the number of Belarusians entering Georgia has grown tenfold between 24 February and 16 March 2022, exceeding 15,000 people.
Visa-free entry for Latvians and Lithuanians
On 15 April, in a surprise move following the opening of borders, the State Border Committee announced visa-free entry via land borders for Lithuanian and Latvian nationals for one month. Belarusian authorities reported in the first two weeks about 11 thousand travellers had taken advantage of the changed visa regime.
Lukashenka has repeatedly stated that Lithuanians and Latvians “are lining at the border and ask us to let them through to Belarus.” On April 29, he added, “They [foreign governments] do not let their people travel to Belarus, because people come here to buy salt.”
But petrol is likely to be in greater demand than Belarusian salt. Political analyst Pavel Usau noted the visa waiver could have economic reasons. Belarusian authorities might want to take advantage of lower petrol prices and essentially turn Belarus into a petrol station for Europeans. This might help alleviate the economic pressure from sanctions. Usau suggested the authorities might think of extending visa-free rules to other European states that are geographically close to Belarus.
In response to the visa waiver, Latvia’s Foreign Ministry advised its citizens against visiting Belarus. The ministry cited “significant risks” and warned about possible recruitment “by the intelligence agencies of Russia and Belarus.”
Latvian officials say they have no reason to believe the visa-free regime was enacted for humanitarian reasons or with any good intentions. They recalled the recent “hybrid attack” on EU borders, referring to the 2021–2022 migrant crisis provoked by Minsk in reaction to the deterioration in Belarus-EU relations.
The bigger picture
Political analyst Valer Karbalevich suggested the visa waiver is a part of a larger plan by Belarusian authorities. As evidence, Karbalevich cited a letter dated 6 April by Foreign Minister Uladzimir Makei to EU foreign ministries. In the letter, Makei writes about the need to “rethink the paradigm that will determine the future of Belarus-EU relations and that of the European security.”
Karbalevich believes Minsk is trying to revive a strategy from 2014. They are attempting to use the Russia-Ukraine conflict to improve relations with the West. In this context, Makei’s letter and the visa waiver can be interpreted as steps to relaunch relations with the West.
But circumstances have changed significantly since 2014. Levels of trust between the EU and Belarus are extremely low. Small, symbolic steps cannot outweigh Belarusian dependency on Russia or a set of bigger issues, such as the growing number of political prisoners and the stated intention to expand Belarus’ death penalty. As long as Russian troops remain in Belarus and use Belarusian facilities to attack Ukraine, it is hard to take Lukashenka’s clumsy attempts at resuming contact with the EU seriously.
The visa waiver scheme and the opening of borders have not been completely ineffectual. These decisions have benefitted ordinary people. Belarusian citizens are now able to travel to the EU without spending a fortune on flights from Minsk, and Latvians and Lithuanians can visit their family and friends in Belarus, or just buy cheap petrol.
Belarus and its neighbourhood become a dead end for Europe
In the fifth round of EU sanctions adopted in response to Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, the union prohibited freight transport on member state territory by Russian and Belarusian carriers from 16 April.
Alongside the EU prohibitions on flights and the Baltic States’ decision to close their ports to Belarus, the new restrictions doom the country and its neighbourhood to degradation.
Transit sanctions on Belarus are a part of an economic war against Russia launched in response to its invasion of Ukraine, rather than a part of a realistic plan for regime change in Minsk.
All roads lead to Russia
After Brussels banned Belarusian and Russian heavy goods vehicles (HGVs) from entering the EU territory, many branch operators expected the worst. They feared Minsk would mirror the response and prohibit all EU freight carriers from entering the country. So far, the Belarusian government has taken a milder course. It has restricted EU-based HGVs from moving inside Belarus farther than 50 km. All HGVs will have to deposit their freight at logistics centres in Belarus. From these centres, transportation will be taken over by Belarusian or Russian firms.
Brussels’ move didn’t come from the blue. Poland and Lithuania began unofficially limiting the transit of goods via Belarus approximately a year ago. For example, in mid-February, Lithuania and Poland processed only 60 per cent of the daily, officially agreed to norm. Last week, the Belarusian State Border Committee complained that Polish and Lithuanian authorities were processing less than 40 per cent of the mutually agreed norms for HGV trade.
The bad news, therefore, was not unexpected in Minsk. But it still comes as a blow. HGV transport had been a growth industry, ranking second behind IT in Belarus’ export of services. The Belarusian Ministry of Transport calculates, that in 2021, the value of transport services had increased by almost 40 per cent to $4.3bn. This is the fastest growth rate in the sector’s history. Of this growth, automobile transport companies provided 76 per cent of the total.
Much of this business presumably involved the transport of goods to and from the EU. Minsk continues to withhold accurate statistics. The disruption of supply will not only result in economic decline. It will also reorientate Belarusian citizens more firmly to Russian, Chinese, and other non-Western sources of consumption. Divisions with the EU will not only be political but increasingly a cultural divide, too. This may prove to be the worst blow to regional cooperation and reintegration.
Belarusian access to the sea
Roadway transportation has been exacerbated by continuing difficulties with shipping Belarusian exports and imports. Belarus, as a landlocked country, is now totally dependent on Russian ports. Other neighbouring countries have prohibited Belarusian entities from using their seaports. After the EU introduced limitations on the export of Belarusian oil products, Minsk signed a February 2021 agreement with Moscow on the export of these goods via Russian ports. A one-sided Belarusian dependence on Russia is solidifying.
Minsk has worked to retain access to the sea. Two years ago, Lithuania started to restrict Belarusian potash exports. After Vilnius had rejected the Belarusian investors’ offers to develop the Lithuanian port of Klaipeda, Minsk looked for alternative export routes. Officials redirected leftover credit from a Russian loan to finance a nuclear power plant. In the second half of 2021, these funds were used to begin construction on Belarus’ own, purpose-built port facility near Saint Petersburg, in Russia. These terminals, built specifically for the export of potash, will enter service in 2023.
So, last November, while Vilnius announced the forthcoming prohibition of Belarusian potash transport via its territory, Minsk did face a problem. But it also had a solution literally under construction. In fact, the Lithuanian government acted on its own initiative—US and EU sanctions at the time did not require such measures from Vilnius.
After the problems with potash exports, Minsk then encountered increasing limitations and bans on other types of cargo. By early 2022, Belarus found itself semi-blockaded by all neighbouring states except Russia. It is reported that since March, the Estonian government has banned all transit—even for Belarusian oil products not included in EU sanctions—via Estonia.
In March, Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenka announced (and Russian President Vladimir Putin later confirmed) that in two years Belarus would have its “own ports” on Russia’s Baltic shores. Minsk plans to concentrate its imports and exports via these seaports. Construction is reportedly already underway. This case suggests the Belarusian government is working to maintain its agency, rather than simply capitulating to directives from Moscow. Not only has Minsk avoided going to war for Putin, but it also proactively seeks to relieve political and economic pressure from Russia by taking the initiative.
However, the ports of North-Western Russia may not provide a full-fledged alternative for Belarusian firms. Indeed, in a few months, they may lose up to 90 per cent of container cargo volumes, warn Russian logistics experts. These losses would result from the newest round of Western sanctions, decisions taken by European trade hubs, and global container shipping lines, which all aim to stop working with Russia. Of about twenty major container shipping lines, fourteen have already refused to work with Russia. It appears the rest are about to do so, too. Only one, China’s COSCO, appears ready to keep moving Russia-related goods. At the same time, large oceangoing ships (especially from South-East Asia) cannot reach North-Western Russian ports, because of the shallowness in the Baltic Sea. Instead, cargo must be reloaded on small feeders in some European havens to be then brought to Russia.
In this grim situation, Belarusian state media like to emphasise that neighbouring countries, by cutting the links with Belarus, are making this region of Europe into a dead end. Decreasing transit and trade will generate poverty for all involved.
For example, with the loss of the Belarusian potash business, cargo turnover at Lithuania’s Klaipeda port is forecast to fall by almost a third. In addition, Latvian railways are set to lose about a third of total freight turnover (last year, Belarusian freight made up 27 per cent).
However, Belarus itself is also becoming a dead-end. Its significance for both its closest allies, Russia and China, is rapidly fading. The main cause is the ongoing disruption of links between Belarus and its neighbours. Belarus is central to the region between the Black and Baltic seas. The entire area faces a decline with dim prospects for development.
This article cites just some of the numerous instances illustrating how general sanctions imposed on Belarus, and upon entire branches of its economy so far failed to make the regime capitulate. Instead, they drive the region into poverty and Belarus into Putin’s hands. Even worse, many of these sanctions were imposed on Belarus for actions taken by Russia. In a paradox, they further limit any autonomy of Belarus from Russia and at the same time punish it for Russia’s actions. Future efforts to promote democracy and prosperity in the region require revising this approach.